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Introduction to Phrasal Verbs

written by: Eric W. Vogt • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 3/2/2012

Many English speakers have never heard of phrasal verbs -- they don't "need" to because they use them constantly. In this article, learn what they are and why they are critical to English speaking students of Spanish.

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    Phrasal Verbs: What They Are and Why They Matter

    If you have a hefty Spanish-English dictionary handy, go and get it now -- before you read on. Open the English-to-Spanish side to the verbs get, put, take and bring. Read through the entries -- slowly, then come back and continue reading.

    You could look up other verbs, such as look or find, but even if you had only looked up get, you probably would have discovered something very interesting. The English language creates entirely new meanings out of a handful of verbs simply be adding or changing prepositions. For learners of English, this is good news and bad news. The good news is that the base vocabulary of verbs needed for a lot of everyday communication is theoretically smaller. On the other hand, the bad news is that the Spanish-speaking learner of English will need to be aware of all the corresponding Spanish verbs for these combinations of English verbs and prepositions.

    For the English-speaking student of Spanish, it means going in the other direction: for each verb plus preposition, there is likely at least one Spanish verb. This means learning a lot of base vocabulary -- even for everyday life. And of course, it means learning -- and remembering their conjugations, regular or irregular.

    As an example to begin studying the topic of phrasal verbs from the point of view of an English speaker learning Spanish, consider the verb to get. By adding prepositions, we "get" a number of meanings that have little to do with one another, in fact, they may be opposites! At the start of this paragraph, I could have said we were getting started... I think you see the challenge that lies ahead.

    Let's consider just two examples though, using the verb get, and see what their Spanish equivalents are: get on and get off. In Spanish, these are subir and bajar. What's more, you'll often need prepositions for them too!

    Subí al avión (I got on the plane).

    Bajé del autobús (I got off the bus).

    In fact, if you go up in an elevator, you'll need en... if you go up by way of the stairs, you'll need por...

    With this short introduction to what phrasal verbs are and what happens when going from English to Spanish, it is hoped that you will be very aware of what you are doing when you speak English so that you can understand how to proceed when seeking their Spanish counterparts. Keeping a list might of the English phrasal you use or hear can be a useful exercise to expand your linguistic consciousness. You'll see more on this topic in the Language Learning Channel!

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